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Karen Goldberg trying to make natural gas more accessible fuel option

Goldberg says her guiding principles are to create less waste, fewer toxins, and more energy efficiency in chemicals and fuels.

Karen Goldberg: It’s a really difficult transformation. It’s been a holy grail in catalytic chemistry to try to do this reaction.

Karen Goldberg is a chemist at the University of Washington. She’s trying to figure out a more efficient way of converting the primary component of natural gas – methane – into a liquid called methanol.

Karen Goldberg: The current industrial process to take methane to methanol is a multi-step process and it requires a lot of energy.

And it’s very expensive, she added. Goldberg explained that the key to making methanol more cheaply and easily is finding the right catalyst, a chemical that converts other chemicals from one form to another.

Karen Goldberg: We always have to be considering the practicality of the chemistry and how it’s going to translate to a large scale process.

She described a big payoff in efficiently converting natural gas into methanol, because natural gas and its by-products burn cleaner than gasoline. Goldberg added that a large percentage of natural gas is found in very remote locations.

Karen Goldberg: The idea is that if we can somehow convert the gas to a liquid, it’ll be easy to transport.

Worldwide, there are 6,000 trillion cubic feet of proven untapped reserves of natural gas, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Karen Goldberg: Though green chemistry, we basically want to reduce the amount of waste we’re producing, and use less energy in the process of making all our fuels and chemicals.

Goldberg told EarthSky that many of the chemical processes widely used today are outdated and need to be reinvented to have a smaller environmental footprint.

Karen Goldberg: A lot of that chemical processing was put in place during the middle of last century. That’s old chemistry, and we have better ways to do things now. And we need to do things better because we need to be more concerned about waste and environmentally friendly reagents.

Methane is a greenhouse gas, but it is cleaner-burning than petroleum gas. Goldberg said it escapes from the earth when petroleum is being pulled up, and is either ignored or burned.

Karen Goldberg: Those things will actually contribute to our greenhouse gases. So, using it is a much better idea.

There is a process for converting methane gas to liquid fuel, but Goldberg said it is an expensive and energy-intensive process which requires a large plant. Goldberg hopes to create a simpler way to do this chemical reaction.

Karen Goldberg: Methanol is a liquid similar in chemical structure to methane. The difference is, it just has an extra oxygen atom in there. So methane is a molecule that has one carbon atom bound to 4 hydrogen atoms. If you could break just one of those carbon-hydrogen bonds and insert an oxygen atom in, you would form methanol.

With collaborators at the University of North Carolina, Goldberg recently discovered that a complex containing the rare metal rhodium can bind to methane. She said that binding the methane would be an intermediate step to the metal breaking the carbon-hydrogen bond.

Our thanks today to the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation.

Lindsay Patterson